Who visits the Badlands?

I realize that this isn’t about animals like aforementioned–I’ll get to that next time, hopefully. Finding a resident brown recluse here in the apartment brought back some creepy crawly memories from the Badlands. Fortunately, most visitors usually don’t get the same sensation from the Badlands. Most.

Who visits the Badlands? Everyone and their brother, it seems. Even my brother. But apparently Frank Lloyd Wright did, too. Here is a nice quote he left for the world in 1935:

Let the sculptors come to the Bad Lands. Let painters come. Let the truest of artists come…He who could interpret this vast gift of nature in terms of human habitation so that Americans on their own continent might glimpse a new and higher civilization certainly, and touch it, and feel as if they lived in it and deserved to call it their own.

I’m not completely convinced it needs to be interpreted in terms of human habitation, but it is interesting to see the ghost town of Conata and the shrinking town of Interior, both choked off from the vital railroads, and wonder what the Badlands would be like without modern comforts. Today, we are lucky enough to drive 8 miles north of the Pinnacles entrance gate and find the wonderful town of Wall, so stuffed with forms of modern ‘comforts’ that it is almost unbearably uncomfortable.

Conata Ghost Town

Conata Ghost Town

I think the “vast gift of nature” speaks for itself. When you arrive at the Badlands, you see for yourself the architectural skills nature possesses. It’s only when you get out of your car, touch what you thought was rock, and watch it crumble beneath your diminutive human hand that you fully realize. At that moment, when you pull your hand back in amazement, wondering how you could do so much damage, you think: “What is this?!”

At that point, you head to the Ben Reifel Visitor Center to ask a question that has been asked ten times an hour. Perhaps you even throw in a joke [that has also been said many times that day]. Hopefully, the staff will be able to answer your question. Hopefully, they will be able to explain it well enough that your sense of amazement will only increase at your newly found knowledge. At the very least, you came in contact with the ‘interpreter’ to which Wright referred, “the truest of artists” that somehow understands all the secrets the Badlands hides.

This ‘artist’ is commonly called a ‘park ranger’. These park rangers have a three-fold task that is much different from the tasks of park rangers past. Used to be, rangers actually ranged, by foot or by horse, around wildernesses and less accessible parks. Today, the story, much like the story of human habitation in the Badlands, is quite different. You won’t find too many mounted patrols of the Badlands, but you will find a ranger in a car, behind the information desk, or, if you are lucky, roving a trail. These rangers’ tasks are to: know who is coming to the park, know the resources contained within the park, and disseminate the information about the resource to those who visit in effective and entertaining, but meaningful, ways. Sounds easy enough. And it should be, but there are many places where kinks in communication can develop, thereby stiffling the important aim of ‘interpreting the resource for the visitor’.

Putting aside the common visitor comments, I think what belongs in center stage is the ranger. The most frequently asked personal question to a park ranger is “Are you stationed here?” or “How long will you be assigned here?”. Park rangers aren’t stationed: they more or less choose the location, through a process of applying and eventually being accepted to a park. In most cases, the park they end up at isn’t the one they would have picked had they free reign, but it probably isn’t their last choice either. The unfortunate part of this freedom of choice and ability to move every 6 months or so is that rangers become attached to this lifestyle of constant change.

There is an odd thing that happens to a fair number of rangers at the end of the season. And just for clarification, most rangers with whom the public has contact are seasonally employed. The lights are on, but no one who gives a hoot is there. Rangers will often mentally check out before the season is over, occupying their minds with the next park, the next move, all the applications floating out in cyberspace or returning home, back to school, or back to family. Sometimes it happens earlier in the season, sometimes later, but in the end, it does not provide the visitor with a proper and full experience like they deserve. So, in all bare truth, it is mostly rangers who visit any National Park. Occassionally, the visitor is the one who comes with the enthusiasm and spark that the ranger lost somewhere out in the landscape and it is the visitor who reminds the ranger what is so dang amazing, majestic, thrilling, beautiful, fantastic, and worth the long drive.

I guess we all need reminders. We all need to be mindful.

PS Hopefully the next post will be about the animals of the Badlands…but it most likely will cover the ‘mountains’ of Oklahoma [who knew?] and then perhaps a brief jaunt to Colorado…


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